The Great Books in the Information Age: The Difference Between Puzzles and Mysteries

The gossip about Enron’s misdealings began in 2000. A couple of experienced investors had a hunch that Enron’s profits were inflated. The investors withdrew their support. Other investors soon followed. Soon Enron’s stock collapsed like a house of cards. When the dust settled, Enron had lost $11 billion in shareholder revenue.

Prosecutors began digging through Enron files hunting for “smoking guns,” for incriminating documents detailing Enron’s corrupt deals. But prosecutors never found locked-away documents. On the contrary, every corrupt Enron deal was posted online. Anyone with a computer could look at them.

Despite the fact that the deals were online, the complexity of the deals prohibited them from being understood. The byzantine intricacy of the deals was almost unfathomable. (One business professor spent two months just diagramming the deals.) The Enron scandal was not a puzzle that could be solved with a missing piece of information. It was a mystery shrouded in an ocean of information.

The Enron scandal was not a puzzle but a mystery. Puzzles are solved by locating missing pieces of information. Mysteries, on the other hand, are problems solved despite an over-abundance of information. This difference—between a puzzle and a mystery—was articulated by national-security expert Gregory Treverton in 2007. During the Cold War, explained Treverton, the CIA was charged with solving puzzles. The CIA searched for particular pieces of information, like the number of missiles in the Soviet Union, their range, and the amount of damage they could inflict. Once operatives found that data, the puzzle was solved. But the nature of the threats facing American security are increasingly mysteries. Toppling Saddam Hussein’s regime was a puzzle (and fairly easy to accomplish). Predicting what would happen in post-Hussein Iraq was a mystery.

Imagine a game of hide-and-go-seek with your son. Finding him is a puzzle. With the right information (his location), you will solve the puzzle. But predicting your son’s reaction upon being found—that is a mystery. Will he giggle, pout, shriek, or cry? To predict his reaction, you would reflect on a large number of factors: his general mood, his breakfast, his competitiveness, the quality of his sleep, the affection between you two. And even after careful consideration, you might not successfully predict his reaction. The complexities are too numerous.

Life’s biggest questions are mysteries. Will you and your fiancé have a happy marriage? Will you succeed at your new job? Will that candidate make a good senator? Does your worldview work? These are mysteries that cannot be uncovered with a new piece of data. “Mysteries,” writes journalist Malcolm Gladwell, “require judgments and the assessment of uncertainty, and the hard part is not that we have too little information but that we have too much” (“Open Secrets,” New Yorker, January 8, 2007).

Contemporary education focuses on puzzle-solving. Universities train students to excel in increasingly narrow disciplines like cell-biology and computer programming. Of course, there is a need for such specific training; we need cell-biologists and JAVA programmers. But an education that focuses exclusively on puzzle-solving leaves life’s bigger mysteries impervious to inquiry. Gladwell suggests that our open society needs more mystery solvers: “slightly batty geniuses” with “language abilities” and the ability to “understand different religions and cultures.”

A classical great books education, in my opinion, is superb training for an open society. Gladwell seems to agree. He lauds a small group of men—the Bletchley Park analysts—for their mystery-solving ability. During the Second World War, this small group of British analysts cracked the Nazi’s incredibly sophisticated secret code. Their accomplishment was a wonder of mystery-solving. It should be no surprise that most of these analysts were educated—not in puzzle-solving—but in the classics.


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